3:14 pm Jun. 2, 20121
Before Prometheus, the only sequel Ridley Scott had made was Hannibal.
Based on an utterly outre novel by Thomas Harris and (sort of) a script by David Mamet, Hannibal exists within a previously established universe. Anyone watching it already knew who Clarice Starling was. And they certainly already knew Hannibal Lecter.
Hannibal, which screens this Sunday night at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, is built on that foundation of knowledge. He and screenwriter Steven Zaillian thus made an ungainly but weirdly compelling follow-up to Jonathan Demme’s wholly superior Silence of the Lambs adaptation.
Part of what makes Hannibal such an interesting failure is how far Scott and Zaillian went to sensationalize Harris’s already garish source novel. They pare down some aspects of Harris’ story, omitting, for example, a subplot involving lesbian lovers, one of whom collects a sperm sample using a cattle prod.
Scott and Zaillian made some drastic changes to Harris’s narrative, not having Clarice (now played by Julianne Moore) and Hannibal (still Anthony Hopkins) fall in love and run away with Hannibal after they both eat the brain of Pail Krendler (Ray Liotta), which actually happens in the book.
Mamet’s original script added a psychological and philosophical heft to the Grand Guignol proceedings. But the context for the story’s setting in Florence, the location of a series of real-life killings attributed to “The Monster of Florence,” isn’t in Hannibal. In fact, there’s not much context for anything in Scott and Zaillian’s Hannibal, least of for the violence.
The film is almost all about Hannibal. Clarice, who in Mamet’s script deals with her “daddy issues,” as Hannibal puts it, and questions her role in various corrupt institutions, simply becomes the woman who knows Hannibal best. She is, in that way, smarter than any of the other people, including Paul and disfigured victim Mason Verger (a gloriously over-the-top Gary Oldman), who spend most of Hannibal hunting Hopkins’s leering but well-read sociopath.
The film version of Hannibal is also very much about the clash of high style and gruesome low impulses that typify the story. A proliferation of classical busts as well as allusions to Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Dante Alighieri’s The New Life and Inferno are off-set by the film’s zeal for blood and guts. Hannibal is probably just as grisly as Alien, prominently featuring everything from a simultaneous hanging and disemboweling to a scene where a man eats a portion of his own brain.
This bloodshed is meant to be offset by the film’s stately Tuscan setting. Scott highlights the Florence’s famous Il Duomo cathedral, the grand Uffizi Museum and medieval cobblestone piazza. I wonder why he and Zaillian didn’t further overstuff Hannibal with references to tacky local attractions like the Cinema Arlecchino, a porn theater that’s fairly close to where the film was shot, or even to the Monster of Florence, a criminal who killed at least 14 people and removed by knife-point the genitals of his female victims.
I suspect Scott and Zaillian just wanted to establish certain key concepts about their characters as quickly as possible so they could get right to the gorier stuff. It’s unclear why Hannibal is visualized as a Christ-like martyr in a later scene, his arms forcibly outstretched horizontally just before he’s offered as a meal to a bunch of man-eating pigs. Given the film’s myopic scope, it at least makes sense that we don’t know why Mason’s elaborate plan to murder Hannibal involves flesh-eating hogs (it’s briefly explained in the book that he is the heir to a pork empire). But beyond an earlier glancing reference to Judas Iscariot (Zaillian specifically compares an Italian inspector played by Giancarlo Giannini to Judas, making Hannibal Christ), there’s no intelligible reason for this reference.
The film’s compelling action and chase scenes, which presage Ridley’s brother Tony Scott’s oversaturated aesthetic, set the movie’s frenzied pace, and Hannibal is fitfully effective in its own brutal way. A scene in which Liotta babbles obscenely as the tissue-thin membrane surrounding his brain is removed achieves the rabidly surreal quality Scott and Zaillian were trying for.
But Scott and Zaillian try so hard to push viewers’ buttons that they never attend to the film’s dilapidated narrative. The viewers spend most of the film wondering what they’re looking at it, and never quite figuring it out.
In light of Hannibal’s shortcomings, it’s probably a very good thing that Prometheus is an Alien prequel but isn’t, according to Scott, “an Alien film.” As was proven by the awful Aliens Vs. Predator movies, making the monster the crux of a second installment is never really a good idea. Here’s hoping that Scott’s new film features a character that’s as complex as Ripley or even Clarice, and that Scott and co. aim a little higher than The Further Misadventures of a Monster in Florence.